Looking back on my 35 years in education, most of my memories are positive ones. I entered the teaching profession to aid in the development of that most precious natural resource – the minds and hearts of our young people. It is their curiosity, their eagerness to learn, their ability to make difficult, complex choices that will decide the future of our world.
In my very early days, just after completing my training, there were times when I seriously doubted if I would succeed in the profession. I remember that feeling of sheer panic as I walked into a Christmas leavers class on a late Monday afternoon – the sweaty palms, the dry mouth, and the shaking hands. Yes, they were children, but children can be cruel, and they can smell fear like a pack of hounds smells blood.
Fortunately, like most teachers, I survived those early trials, and went on to reap the many rewards that come with a career in the classroom. English and drama were the perfect subjects for me because they are all about communicating ideas, exploring feelings, and being creative.
As Aristotle said: “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” As with all subjects, they provided plenty of those light bulb moments when a child grasps a new concept, or learns how to do something for the very first time.
I shall never forget the first such occasion, during my first teaching job, in Kirkcaldy. There was a boy called Graham in my O Grade set who struggled badly with reading and writing. No matter how much I tried to engage him in stories he remained remote and out of reach. Finally, I tried a book called The Runaways, about an escaped tiger and a boy.
As I started to read aloud in class, Graham suddenly became interested – so much so that he responded by answering questions from the story out loud himself. By the end of the story Graham had produced the most beautiful drawings of the tiger –incredible artwork which depicted the story’s detail. The book had captured something in this boy’s heart and he had learned to connect ideas pictorially.
I greatly enjoyed the academic side of teaching, but my passion has always been for pastoral care. As a young guidance teacher, and later, as a housemistress and pastoral deputy head, I embraced the responsibilities and privileges that go with caring for other people’s children. Helping them to navigate a path through the uncertainties and insecurities of adolescence can be physically and emotionally draining, particularly in a boarding school, but seeing them emerge as confident young adults is hugely rewarding.
As a head, the challenges and rewards are different. Visits to the classroom become rarer; instead, you are thrust into a never-ending round of management meetings, administrative duties, policy discussions and school engagements.
Deprived of the camaraderie that exists in most staff rooms, headship can be a lonely and stressful business. In the independent sector there is the additional responsibility for recruiting pupils; a pressure that tends to grow as the school year progresses.
As a head, however, you do get the opportunity to make a real difference to the lives of children. To achieve this you need a culture that puts the pupils right at the heart of the school, and the support of the staff.
Of all the responsibilities that a head has, none is more important than that of appointing good teachers. An inspirational teacher can ignite the sparks of curiosity as quickly as a poor teacher can dash them out.
As an English teacher, I like a good ending, but a happy one is not always possible. My husband, Richard, has motor neurone disease, and as he enters the final stages of this awful illness I am stepping down to spend precious time with him. Last year, he gave a moving chapel talk to the pupils at Glenalmond, using his synthetic voice, and they have raised more than £8,000 for MND research.
I strongly believe that young people should be aware that none of us live flawless lives; that bad things happen, even to decent people. In order to deal with life, in all its forms, they need to build resilience.
We have tried to turn the sadness of living with MND into a learning opportunity – after all, is that not what good teaching is all about?
Elaine Logan, warden, Glenalmond College